In May of 2022, the Hudson River Maritime Museum will be running a Grain Race in cooperation with the Schooner Apollonia, The Northeast Grainshed Alliance, and the Center for Post Carbon Logistics. Anyone interested in the race can find out more here.
Rebuilding an industry that has been effectively dead for a century is no easy task. It is made harder by economic and political forces which make competing technologies artificially cheaper, transport infrastructure designed for use by a single technology, and a lack of public interest. These are the principal challenges to a Sail Freight future, and it should be noted that none of them are technical in nature. Humanity has been moving cargo under sail for tens of thousands of years, and continues to do so. The changes needed for a Sail Freight future are mostly cultural and social.
Three keys are needed to get Sail Freight into the transportation mix at scale. The first is a change in speed requirements. As long as next day shipping is demanded at all costs, sail freight is less viable. When this social construct can be changed to allow for slower and less certain transportation, of both food and other goods, Sail Freight becomes viable.
The second is based in social infrastructure. The networks of shipping relations by sail need to be rebuilt, between sailors and those sending and receiving goods. Within the food system, this can be quite complex, but is starting to make a recovery within local food systems. As the fleet expands, these relationships must expand as well.
The third adaptation we will need to make for Sail Freight to be viable is increasing the economic cost of other means of transport. This will happen with the rise of carbon taxes, fuel scarcities, and other challenges which are likely to be part of the coming energy transition. At about $8/gallon of diesel fuel, Sail Freight at competitive wages and full crews will be highly competitive with long distance trucking and rail transport.
The final challenge is to have a sufficient fleet of sail cargo vessels built and afloat, with sufficient sailors to crew them when the above conditions are met. This can all be accomplished if we set our minds to it, and then the more trivial matters of setting up brokerages, freight offices, and warehouses will be essentially trivial.
To build a sustainable world, we have a lot of work to do. Thankfully, the work is clear and achievable if we choose to do it.
You can find more information on the Grain Race here.
Steven Woods is the Solaris and Education coordinator at HRMM. He earned his Master's degree in Resilient and Sustainable Communities at Prescott College, and wrote his thesis on the revival of Sail Freight for supplying the New York Metro Area's food needs. Steven has worked in Museums for over 20 years.
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